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COVID-19 in Brooks: How a small Alberta city faced one of Canada’s most virulent outbreaks

How the virus spread so quickly in Brooks, Alberta
WATCH: How the virus spread so quickly in Brooks, Alberta

When the novel coronavirus pandemic hit Brooks, Alta., Meriam Funa was among the first to get sick.

Her husband came home from work at the JBS meat packing plant feeling like he had the flu, and within days, Funa started experiencing symptoms as well.

READ MORE: JBS beef plant in Alberta returning to 2 shifts per day after COVID-19 outbreak

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“The first few days, I thought it was just an ordinary flu and then the cough started and the difficulty breathing was real — that was the scariest part.” said Funa.

“I thought it was just an ordinary cough, but when the difficulty breathing started, I said, ‘oh, it’s real, it’s COVID.”

LISTEN BELOW: Global News’ Heather Yourex-West joins the Ryan Jespersen Show on 630 CHED

Funa and her husband both tested positive for COVID-19 in mid-April but in this community of less than 15,000 people, there would soon be many more.

“It was after the Easter long weekend, we started to see some cases and the numbers started to go up and then, as you know, it was a very rapid increase,” said Barry Morishita, mayor of Brooks.

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“We had a massive amount of community spread and big numbers for a small city.”

According to data supplied by the City of Brooks, there were three cases on April 14. By April 19 that number had grown to more than 100 and the numbers kept climbing.

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By the first week of May, there more than 1,000 cases.

“We were having an increase of 100 or more (cases) per day and we were also looking at High River, what happened in High River,” said Mohammed Idriss, a case manager with Brooks & County Immigration Services and a member of the Brooks Emergency Operations Centre.

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Two hours west of Brooks, High River, had experienced a similar outbreak — and the two Alberta communities share a lot in common. Both are home to a diverse population of immigrant families, with large numbers of residents travelling to work at nearby beef processing facilities.

READ MORE: Meat processing disruptions amid COVID-19 spur changes to Canadian beef supply, prices ahead of BBQ season

Throughout the Brooks outbreak, the JBS plant never shut down but it did scale back production.  The second shift of workers was cut and personal protection equipment was supplied to all employees.

“We have proactively identified and adopted more than 100 preventive measures at the Brooks facility to ensure a safe working environment for our team members, including providing face masks and face shields to be worn at all times for operations in the facility,” said JBS Canada spokesperson Rob Meijer.

Workers inside the JBS beef processing facility work during the COVID-19 pandemic
Supplied. JBS Canada

But at least one worker at the plant says safety protocols weren’t always followed.

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Remilyn Biay worked in packaging before taking leave in mid-April.  She says her employer provided personal protective equipment (PPE) and implemented physical distancing policies, but she also says that on the noisy production floor, the new safety protocols made it difficult to complete necessary tasks.

“You need to take off your face shield and sometimes you need to take off your (mask)… to be heard,” Biay said.  She says she observed workers doing this often.

The company says employees have been trained on how to properly use PPE.

“We have educated our team members on required application and use of all personal protective equipment, including masks and that they are not to be taken off or lifted to talk.” Meijer said.

“We have safety supervisors throughout our operations that help monitor, educate, and remind team members of the requirements.

Team member health and safety is our highest priority.”

Health officials did trace some of the cases in Brooks to an outbreak at JBS, but community spread was happening outside the plant as well.

READ MORE: Province to decide Friday whether Calgary, Brooks will move to next phase of Stage 1 relaunch

“It (was)  not just linked to the large meat plant in Brooks. It really, truly was a community outbreak and we had a multitude of outbreaks in multiple locations,” said Dr. Vivien Suttorp, Alberta Health Services Medical Officer of Health for the South Zone.

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“Many people in Brooks work and they work very, very hard. People work multiple jobs. That is amazing but it also may help further spread.”

“Another challenge in Brooks is the multi-generational housing so we had complex housing situations and at times very crowded housing.”

As of May 20, 2020, Brooks has had a total 1,090 cases of COVID-19 and seven deaths.

During the first week of May, the curve of the outbreak in Brooks began to flatten. On Friday, in part two of her special series, Heather Yourex-West looks at how the community was able to contain the outbreak before hundreds of others got sick.